Logjams, legal & literal

Cleaning out Wolf Creek was a project that took 50 years

PHOTO SUBMITTED A view of a logjams on Wolf Creek before it was removed over the past couple years.

More than 50 years after a group of landowners met to talk about cleaning out Wolf Creek, the job has been accomplished.

The project, first proposed in the mid-1960s, required working through logjams of two types — legal ones and those in the water.

Seneca County Engineer Mark Zimmerman said he’s been working on the Wolf Creek project though much of his career working for the county, starting when he worked at Seneca Soil & Water Conservation District and ending as county engineer.

“One of the very first things I worked on was Wolf Creek,” he said. “Getting the injunctions removed from Wolf Creek.”

That was in April 1991.

The injunctions had been placed on creek maintenance in the 1970s after landowners signed a petition asking that work be stopped.

“Shortly after it was petitioned and the commissioners had their first hearing, Wolf Creek literally was under a court order not to have any work done on it,” he said.

That order lasted until the 1990s.

In the meantime, Zimmerman said, property owners who wanted to clean out their own portion of the creek had to get a permit.

“Of the roughly 40 or 50 landowners, less than a handful actually got any permits and did any work,” he said. “Some were diligent, but could only go to their property line.”

That was less than ideal, he said.

Zimmerman said he worked on the project again when he started working at the county engineer’s office.

“We worked on it when Jim Nimz was still here,” he said. “He worked on trying to develop a co-op group.

Zimmerman said there are several methods of keeping waterways clear.

“The best and easiest is when all the landowners take care of their own property,” he said.

However, there are more absentee landowners today than there have been in the past, and they lease their farmland.

“If you don’t live there, you don’t recognize the fact that your ditch is filling up with debris and your trees are falling in,” he said. “There’s little incentive for a farmer farming for you to do a large amount of creek work.”

Because taking care of creeks and ditches by individuals doesn’t happen much anymore, he said the second-best way to keep waterways clear is to create a cooperative through Seneca Conservation District.

A co-op is a private group operated by landowners.

“Funds are local and private,” he said. “When the contract is let to a prospective bidder, it is a private contract. While we help guide the process, it is their process.”

Every time a level of government is added, Zimmerman said it adds cost to the project.

For a co-op to work, he said, all landowners must agree that the work needs to be done. SCD then works out a plan and scope, and the landowners pay for it.

Zimmerman said Nimz attempted to form a co-op for the Wolf Creek project in the late 1990s, but there wasn’t enough cooperation among the nearly 7,000 parcels of land in the creek’s watershed.

About 3,000 of those parcels are in the city of Fostoria, he said, which the city takes care of as a group. Another 4,000 parcels outside of Fostoria range from 160-acre farms to many quarter-acre lots.

“Once again, Wolf Creek sat until 2013,” Zimmerman said.

Then, landowners being affected by flooding filed a petition with the county commissioners.

“That sets forth a set a procedures that have to be followed,” he said.

The petition states the wishes of the landowners who sign the petition, and the commissioners investigate. The commissioners then ordered Zimmerman, as county engineer, by law, to prepare a preliminary investigation.

“The purpose is to determine if the petition has merit,” he said.

Zimmerman said such petitions are the one place in the law where the county engineer has the sole discretion to decide if the benefits of a project outweigh the costs.

“Seneca County, being as flat and agricultural as we are, I would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in Seneca County where drainage would not be important enough,” he said.

After he made that recommendation, Zimmerman said the commissioners ordered him to draw up plans and specifications for the project.

He said the project proceeded slowly from 2014 to 2017.

“That was kind of on purpose,” he said. “We have been waiting 50 years to get Wolf Creek cleaned out,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the landowners were aware. We tried to convince the landowners it was in their best interest to do the work themselves.”

During that time, Zimmerman said, landowners met, log jams were marked and details were provided on how to remove them.

“Not a single tree was removed by a landowner,” he said. “Or at least not a single tree that was reported so we could certify that it was done and get the assessment reduced.”

In early 2017, Zimmerman said the commissioners started receiving questions about why nothing was happening on the project, so the commissioners, Zimmerman and Seneca Conservation District representatives determined it was time for the next step.

The bidding process was started, and the county contracted with Feller Finch and Associates in late 2017 to clean the creek as well as handle engineering and design. The project estimate was $317,000, he said, but the bid was $270,000.

“They did a fantastic job,” Zimmerman said.

The clean-up work was started in January 2018 and continued whenever flooding was not a problem. In addition to removing log jams, dead and leaning trees were removed.

Because of wet weather last fall, the company could not meet the deadline without damaging farmland, so the contract was extended.

“They came back this winter and in March the work was completed,” Zimmerman said. “The project is done and certified.”

Wolf Creek is clear of obstructions from SR 18 through Bettsville.

“We have had reports from landowners that they are surprised that areas that used to flood don’t flood as much or at all anymore,” he said.

Also, he said the water levels under large bridges over Wolf Creek have reduced by 2 feet.

“That’s good for preventing scour and undermining bridges,” he said. “It seems to have done what it was intended to do.”

The next step is to put Wolf Creek under a county maintenance plan to make sure it remains clear.

Assessments also are underway, he said, and a maintenance bond is included to provide funds for future cleaning.

“We established a maintenance bond just to ensure the work is complete,” he said. “We’re creating a separate project description for Wolf Creek because it’s different from other ditch maintenance projects. It’s a long-term document filed with the petition to ensure we never have to do this again,” Zimmerman said.

“We are now working on finalizing the assessments,” he said.

Assessments are made in three tiers, depending on the distance from the ditch

“Whoever uses the most of the ditch pays more,” he said.

Assessment are added to tax bills from the auditor’s office, and larger assessments can be paid over three to five years.

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